Free Speech: An Inextricable Part of Higher Education

By February 2, 2015

by Mahishan Gnanaseharan

Suppose that a foreign university establishes an indoctrination program for its students. Imagine that this institution designs curricula to promote its own values and condemn ideas that are not supported by its government.

Now assume that another university establishes a similar program. However, this “orientation session” forces students to answer intrusive questions in order to publicly humiliate differing opinions.

Most citizens would assume that these two programs had occurred in foreign countries governed by authoritarian regimes. What other countries would allow programs so restrictive of free speech in their temples of learning? However, many would be surprised to learn that the latter occurred at the University of Delaware, less than one hundred miles from Washington D.C.; the former was instituted in China, a single-party state, at the turn of the century.

This invasive program at one of the United States’ most established universities sheds light on an alarming phenomenon. An increasing number of colleges and universities are attempting to impress their preferences and opinions on students through education initiatives, orientation sessions, and various immersion programs. In this process, these institutions are violating students’ rights to free speech and limiting their capacity to advance collective education. For instance, in 2005, Professor KC Johnson at Brooklyn College challenged “Dispositions Theory,” a set of education standards that amounted to political litmus tests for prospective public school teachers. After Professor Johnson criticized these standards in an Op-Ed, he faced interrogation sessions by a college “Integrity Committee.” Although Brooklyn College eventually dropped the charges against his constitutionally protected free speech, its actions revealed a disheartening trend: rather than being welcomed, students and teachers who challenge the status quo of education are intimidated by the institutions that were founded to advance collective education. Knowledge is the greatest component of education, and robust knowledge is strengthened by the challenges and provocations of its students and instructors. In 1957, the Supreme Court succinctly articulated this: “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” Free speech on college and university campuses is necessary because it enables students and instructors to advance higher education. Higher learning institutions contradict their basic principles through restrictive free speech policies.

In a similar form, college students across the “land of the free” are being denied the freedom of speech—the most crucial ingredient to intellectual growth. Students’ educational experiences are grounded in their ability to engage one another. A complete education entails a forum of individual thoughts and opinions. A healthy exchange of these thoughts facilitates a lifetime of learning and engagement, which is a primary goal of any higher education institution. However, schools with restrictive free speech policies, such as “free speech zones” or arcane permit requirements, limit individuals’ access to collective pools of thoughts and opinions.

In 2012, Chris Morbitzer and Roshal Wanigasooriya at the University of Cincinnati were handing out flyers for a student organization when they were reprimanded by a campus bureaucrat. After being ordered to stay within a miniscule plot of land, they were only able to interact with six people on a campus whose population exceeded 40,000 students. As a result, Morbitzer and Wanigasooriya could not completely engage their classmates until the policy was overturned by a federal court. If left unchallenged, similar policies could undermine all students’ right to free speech, the foremost reason why American education is prized throughout the world.

Moreover, universities fail to realize that their limits on individual expression are irreconcilable with their intent to educate the next generation of civic leaders. A prosperous society depends upon educated leaders who are collaborative and empathetic—two qualities that are fostered by free speech activities at colleges and universities throughout the country.

Besides being necessary in a holistic education, free speech arms students against universities’ inequities. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis declared a fundamental truth: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” The circumstances at the University of Cincinnati reaffirmed the necessity of free speech on campuses. Morbitzer had summoned the courage to challenge his university in federal court, a process that he said “felt a lot like David versus Goliath, like I had no chance at all.” His sentiment illustrated that free speech is necessary to keep powerful organizations in order. Hayden Barnes at Valdosta State University and Andre Massena at Binghamton University were both censored for directly addressing administrators’ injustices. However, as a result of direct legal intervention, the students in all three instances were able to utilize free speech and overturn their universities’ censures. With the help of free speech advocates, such as the Foundation for Individuals Rights in Education (FIRE), these students eventually proved the necessity of free speech at institutions whose actions often require serious oversight. Free speech on college and university campuses empowers students who seek education from institutions that frequently have misaligned interests.

Universities and colleges are widely hindering themselves and their students through policies and programs that limit free speech. Such initiatives are fundamentally incompatible with their mission to provide an open setting for learning. Furthermore, students need to be able to challenge the status quo as part of their civic education. They are scholars as well as citizens. Colleges and universities should be, among other things, the breeding grounds for citizenship in a vocal and participatory democracy. Higher education policies must change to accommodate and encourage an intrepid nation.